In many countries in the Sahel and northern Africa, the state lacks an effective presence in border regions. This has dire consequences for communities that reside there, as the state is generally unable or unwilling to provide them with basic security and services. State absence has become a particularly pressing concern since the 2011 fall of Gaddafi in Libya, which set in motion a chain reaction of armed group formation and the spread of violent extremist organisations that now threaten the stability of the region. By capitalising on both the absence of state security and local populations’ grievances about central state neglect, these groups have been able to cement their presence throughout the Sahel, in Mali and Niger for example.
This report explores whether traditional authorities in Mali, Niger and Libya could play a role in addressing these dynamics. Since pre-colonial times, traditional authorities such as tribal chiefs and religious leaders have performed governance tasks, such as the administration of justice and conflict mediation. They also play ‘an important symbolic role as representatives of community identity, unity, continuity, and stability.’ This has earned them a high degree of legitimacy among the public. In areas of state absence, traditional authorities could therefore provide pivotal entry points for local dispute resolution and mediation initiatives. Yet, as this report shows, traditional authorities have always been part of the political context, and are thus liable to be drawn into political – and sometimes violent – conflict.
To assess whether traditional authorities can contribute to governance and stability, this report aims to provide a better understanding of how traditional authorities come to power, the extent to which their communities regard them as legitimate authorities, and the extent to which communities feel that traditional leaders are best-placed to address their concerns. The application of this multidimensional perspective to legitimacy, as advanced by Beetham (2013), leads to the following central research questions:
How do the traditional authorities engaged in local governance in fragile settings, such as areas of limited statehood, build and maintain legitimacy? And what consequences does this have for (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability?
To answer this question, the study compares experiences with traditional governance in border regions in Mali, Niger, and Libya. The three countries are home to the Tuareg ethnic group. As such, they present a natural experiment that allows for the tracing of the evolution of traditional authority regimes over time amidst different state structures and different types of regimes, and under the influence of different contextual pressures and challenges. In addition, all three countries are theatres of violent conflict. Yet the conflict dynamics present in the countries manifest themselves in many different ways. To account for the different effects these dynamics have on traditional governance structures, the following border regions were selected:
Mali: Since the outbreak of the 2012 Malian rebellion, northern Mali has fallen into the hands of non-state armed groups. While the armed groups that together constitute the pro-autonomy alliance Coordination des movement de l’Azawad (CMA) control the northern Kidal region, the Ménaka region is in the hands of armed groups belonging to the pro-central state Platform coalition. Selection of these regions allows for a comparison of the traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different types of armed governance.
Niger: The Tillabéri region has faced decade-long cross-border cattle raids and revenge violence between Nigerien Fulani and Malian Tuareg. Radical armed groups have been able to capitalise on these conflict lines, resulting in a rapid increase in violence and instability in the region. Tahoua is the hotbed of Tuareg rebellions in Niger and is also experiencing an increase in cross-border violence from Mali. Nevertheless, the municipalities selected for this study are located in a more secure area of Tahoua – allowing for a comparison of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different security conditions.
Libya: The Fezzan region in Libya has known a long history of state neglect. Yet its Tuareg population has always been deemed an important ally for central governors from colonial times to the present day. Today, the two main national conflict actors seek to establish alliances with Tuareg armed groups to put the balance of power in their own favour – albeit in a haphazard manner. Inclusion of the Fezzan in this study therefore allows for an exploration of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under conditions of national armed governance attempts to gain control over the region.
The study relies on data obtained through 323 key informant interviews with traditional authorities and other governance actors. In addition, we organised 1-2 rounds of follow-up workshops and meetings in the three countries to discuss initial findings and recommendations with local research teams, as well as with a wide range of experts, (traditional) authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the international community. Key data collected on the relationships between traditional authorities and other actors in the municipalities under study here can be found at our project website: link.
Analysis of the collected data led to in the following main findings and recommendations: